The shape of a publication

When we read in print, we go on a physical journey through the text. Our hands map the block of the paper, and our eyes trace the shape of the text. We shift our bodies to the size and weight of the pages. And the typography and layout ask us to lean forward or sit back, brighten the room or settle under a soft lamp. All this happens unconsciously.

By the end of a journey through print, our bodies have a physical memory of where we’ve been that is rich and primal.

Screens are very different. While our bodies also respond to the shape, clarity and weight of our device, and the experience of using the software, the nature of the text we read on it has far less effect on our overall experience than in print.

One the one hand, that limitation is inevitable: we control so little of the user’s overall experience. On the other hand, we have much to learn and invent when it comes to creating visceral, memorable experiences on screens.

As content creators, we have to learn as much as we can about how devices and software affect our readers’ experience, and to try new things. And as teams, we have to develop and agree on new vocabularies for the things we try, so that we can share our thinking and make clear team decisions.

The ‘page’

There is potential for confusion on multi-format projects about what we mean by ‘page’.

Reading topography

Reading topography is the mental map that our minds and hands make of a printed publication as we read it. It lets us form spatial memories as we read.

For instance, when you remember a passage in a paper book, you remember where it was on the page and in the book. When you look for that passage again, your hands can sense how many pages fell before and after, and your eyes know to look for it in, say, the top of a right-hand page.

Your mind makes a map of the book that is informed largely by the fixed, physical shape of the book.

On screen everything is fluid, and separated from us by a cold sheet of glass. We are at a greater distance from the shifting text. It is almost impossible to form a mental map of the book. As such, digital books have very little natural topography.

When we’re creating digital publications, we must look for opportunities to make up for that. Here are some techniques you might use.